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Almost a month ago, on August 12, supply chains ran amok in Chinese port of Tianjin, the largest man-made port in mainland China. At least two explosions in a container storage station owned by a Logistics company killed 139 people including 81 fire-fighters among others; 3000 new cars were gutted. The shockwaves due to blasts, which many residents mistook for an atomic explosion, sent containers flying around in the air.
This catastrophe wasn’t a fictional event in a film for us to not fret over it. It had much wider ramifications apart from the visible loss of life, limb and property as it disrupted other supply chains that are yet to resume normalcy. The probable cause was igniting of hazardous chemicals like Sodium Cyanide, CNG and butatone, an industrial solvent inside the containers. The firm, Tinjan International Ruihai Logistics Co. Ltd, which specialises in hazardous materials, had the containers in its charge.
More than three decades ago, in 1984, India faced one of the world’s biggest disasters in its pesticide supply chain, what we know as Bhopal gas tragedy. The methyl isocynate gas-leak from the plant at midnight quickly killed 4000 and impaired many times that number, a far worse consequence than Tinanjin. We viewed it as an industrial accident because of lax safety standards, confined to a manufacturing plant and, as the issue became politicised, forgot about the other weak links throughout the supply chain.
Accidents can happen anywhere in the labyrinthine network of supply chains—right from the initial stage, manufacture, until the goods reach the last stage, consumer. The propensity toward mishap being more in those chains that deal with hazardous goods. In that too, the chains are most vulnerable during the transportation of dangerous goods; therefore, the logistics of transporting dangerous goods is often tricky.
Just as large portion of Tianjin port area, including the dry port area, is spread over and contiguous to urban areas, so are India’s logistics facilities. Tianjin is at least 170 km Southeast of Bejing; we have a dry port, a rail inland container depot in Tughlaqabad, Delhi, and a container park in Ballabgarh, just 10 kilometres from Faridabad. Or for that matter consider only the fifty odd kilometres that separate JNPT from Panvel in Mumbai. Or the innumerable warehouses that dot the residential areas across the length and breadth of the country. The scale of operations at these dry and wet ports may be a fraction of Tianjin’s, 4th largest throughput of containers with capacity expansion still going on, but the destruction may be greater due to high population density, if such a catastrophe were to ever occur.
A plethora of national as well as international regulations exist, especially for transportation of hazardous goods, most of them based on UN Recommendations on the Transport of Dangerous Goods issued by The United Nations Economic and Social Council: International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Technical Instructions; International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) Dangerous Goods Regulations; the International Maritime Organisation’s (IMO) International Maritime Dangerous Goods Code; International Carriage of Dangerous Goods by Rail . And these cover the entire gamut of logistics from packaging, labelling and handling to transporting.
India has its own regulations regarding various dangerous goods ranging from explosives and gases to toxic substances and radioactive material covering various areas: storage, handling, treatment, transportation and disposal. The legislations fall under various ministries like Central Motor Vehicle Act (CMVA), 1989 and Ministry of Environment with usual stipulations of penalties and fines for violations. But, in India too, like most of South Asia, having laws and regulations and their implementation are two different ballgames.
Clause 9 of India’s CMVA,1989, for instance, lays down : ‘’ any person driving a goods carriage carrying goods of dangerous or hazardous nature to human life shall, in addition to being the holder of a driving licence to drive a transport vehicle, also has the ability to read and write at least one Indian language out of those 25[specified in the VIII Schedule of the Constitution] and English and also possess a certificate of having successfully passed a course consisting of following syllabus and periodicity connected with the transport of such goods.’’
How many of our drivers are complying with above stipulated language and certification requirement is not very difficult to guess, leave aside the currency of syllabus and quality of training institutes. A large number ghastly accidents on our roads involving tankers carrying ammonia, LPG, CNG, petrol, diesel and methanol are testimony to the compliance of these regulations.
Awareness about the dangers posed by the dangerous goods is lacking among the workers themselves in the supply chain, let alone public. It is all right if many of us do not know that even the rechargeable Lithium Ion batteries used in our cell phones and laptops when shipped by air as individual items through a freight forwarder are treated as dangerous goods by IATA from January 1st, 2015. But can we condone passengers carrying cooking gas cylinders and kerosene stoves in the train compartments.
Though enforcing regulations is the best insurance against cataclysms in the supply chain, still the best-laid plans of mice and men oft go astray; therefore, an emergency response plan to such catastrophes is essential. That would also be prudent, if we wish to emulate Chinese growth pattern, sans the big bang or its Tianjin.
Prashant K Singh is a logistics and supply chain management professional with the Indian Air Force. The views are personal.
He tweets as @ZenPK